IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Coral reefs

Reef-building corals are under stress on many coastlines (see Chapter 1, Section Reefs have deteriorated as a result of a combination of anthropogenic impacts such as overfishing and pollution from adjacent land masses (Pandolfi et al., 2003; Graham et al., 2006), together with an increased frequency and severity of bleaching associated with climate change (Box 6.1). The relative significance of these stresses varies from site to site. Coral mortality on Caribbean reefs is generally related to recent disease outbreaks, variations in herbivory5, and hurricanes (Gardner et al., 2003; McWilliams et al., 2005), whereas Pacific reefs have been particularly impacted by episodes of coral bleaching caused by thermal stress anomalies especially during recent El Niño events (Hughes et al., 2003), as well as non-climate stresses.

Mass coral bleaching events are clearly correlated with rises of SST of short duration above summer maxima (Douglas, 2003; Lesser, 2004; McWilliams et al., 2005). Particularly extensive bleaching was recorded across the Indian Ocean region associated with extreme El Niño conditions in 1998 (Box 6.1 and Chapter 11, Section 11.6: Climate change and the Great Barrier Reef case study). Many reefs appear to have experienced similar SST conditions earlier in the 20th century and it is unclear how extensive bleaching was before widespread reporting post-1980 (Barton and Casey, 2005). There is limited ecological and genetic evidence for adaptation of corals to warmer conditions (Boxes 4.4 and 6.1). It is very likely that projected future increases in SST of about 1 to 3°C (Section 6.3.2) will result in more frequent bleaching events and widespread mortality, if there is not thermal adaptation or acclimatisation by corals and their symbionts (Sheppard, 2003; Hoegh-Guldberg, 2004). The ability of coral reef ecosystems to withstand the impacts of climate change will depend on the extent of degradation from other anthropogenic pressures and the frequency of future bleaching events (Donner et al., 2005).

In addition to coral bleaching, there are other threats to reefs associated with climate change (Kleypas and Langdon, 2002). Increased concentrations of CO2 in seawater will lead to ocean acidification (Section 6.3.2), affecting aragonite saturation state (Meehl et al., 2007) and reducing calcification rates of calcifying organisms such as corals (LeClerq et al., 2002; Guinotte et al., 2003; Chapter 4, Box 4.4). Cores from long-lived massive corals indicate past minor variations in calcification (Lough and Barnes, 2000), but disintegration of degraded reefs following bleaching or reduced calcification may result in increased wave energy across reef flats with potential for shoreline erosion (Sheppard et al., 2005). Relative sea-level rise appears unlikely to threaten reefs in the next few decades; coral reefs have been shown to keep pace with rapid postglacial sea-level rise when not subjected to environmental or anthropogenic stresses (Hallock, 2005). A slight rise in sea level is likely to result in submergence of some Indo-Pacific reef flats and recolonisation by corals, as these intertidal surfaces, presently emerged at low tide, become suitable for coral growth (Buddemeier et al., 2004).

Many reefs are affected by tropical cyclones (hurricanes, typhoons); impacts range from minor breakage of fragile corals to destruction of the majority of corals on a reef and deposition of debris as coarse storm ridges. Such storms represent major perturbations, affecting species composition and abundance, from which reef ecosystems require time to recover. The sequence of ridges deposited on the reef top can provide a record of past storm history (Hayne and Chappell, 2001); for the northern Great Barrier Reef no change in frequency of extremely large cyclones has been detected over the past 5000 years (Nott and Hayne, 2001). An intensification of tropical storms (Section 6.3.2) could have devastating consequences on the reefs themselves, as well as for the inhabitants of many low-lying islands (Sections 6.4.2 and There is limited evidence that global warming may result in an increase of coral range; for example, extension of branching Acropora poleward has been recorded in Florida, despite an almost Caribbean-wide trend for reef deterioration (Precht and Aronson, 2004), but there are several constraints, including low genetic diversity and the limited suitable substrate at the latitudinal limits to reef growth (Riegl, 2003; Ayre and Hughes, 2004; Woodroffe et al., 2005).

The fate of the small reef islands on the rim of atolls is of special concern. Small reef islands in the Indo-Pacific formed over recent millennia during a period when regional sea level fell (Woodroffe and Morrison, 2001; Dickinson, 2004). However, the response of these islands to future sea-level rise remains uncertain, and is addressed in greater detail in Chapter 16, Section 16.4.2. It will be important to identify critical thresholds of change beyond which there may be collapse of ecological and social systems on atolls. There are limited data, little local expertise to assess the dangers, and a low level of economic activity to cover the costs of adaptation for atolls in countries such as the Maldives, Kiribati and Tuvalu (Barnett and Adger, 2003; Chapter 16, Box 16.6).